Myladi - stones come to life as Gods in this TN town

Myladi Idols | Photos: Basil Paulo

Myladi, a village in southern Tamil Nadu, is where Gods ‘take birth’. Expert artisans here create idols, sculptures as well as decorative pillars out of stone for temples. The entire village reflects divinity all around. Sculptors work in shacks surrounded by paddy fields. Smoke and dust billows out of the workplaces as the wind blows steadily outdoors.

The village is located on the Kanyakumari–Koodankulam highway and can also be reached via the road to Anchugramam which deviates before Kanyakumari. Majority of the menfolk in the village are stone sculptors. Over the last six centuries, Myladi has been the centre of ‘Krishnasila’ art. Krishnasila is a kind of stone used in temple architecture. Massive temples, grand temple towers and elaborately carved temple gates have been created, along with the idols. “There is no temple in Tamil Nadu or Kerala which does not have at least one sculpture created here,” any artisan in Myladi would say proudly.

Divinity all around

Work takes place in the village under artisans’ collectives, each named after either the gods Ganapathy or Subrahmanya. Some among them are registered cooperative societies. The Myladi Stone Workers’ Cooperative Society operating at Marthandapuram has enlisted the biggest number of sculptors in the area. The society was formed in 1958 and its current president is Manikyan. “Around 1,000 people work with us, most of them hailing from traditional artisans’ families. Some youths undertake a sculpture course at Mahabalipuram before joining us,” he says.

Prior to transforming itself into an artisans’ village, Myladi was part of the uninhabited rocky landscape. Artisans reached the area after work started on the Suchindram Temple in old Kanyakumari under the erstwhile Travancore kingdom. Most of them hailed from Kazhukumala, Tirunelveli, Koyilpetty and Sankarankovil. The construction of the temple took several years. The rocks at Myladi were ideal for making idols and even after the temple was built, the sculptors continued in the area. It soon became their new home.

Male and female rocks

Before the rocks are chiselled into idols, prayers are offered. After the idols are ready more rituals are conducted before taking them to temples. “Some temple officials ask a sculptor too to accompany them. This is to help them fix the idol at the temple and conduct the ‘eye opening ceremony’. The chisel used for this ceremony also has much religious significance,” says Vinayakan, an artisan.

The legend of Perunthachan, an honorific meaning master carpenter, has two references to Krishnasila. One is that Perunthachan used to create the seven musical notes on the stone. The other is that the divine sculptor could distinguish between male and female rocks. Interestingly, sculptors possessing these skills still live and work in Myladi.

“Sucheendram temple flaunts musical pillars made of rock. The descendants of the artisans who created this wonder can still reproduce the same magic”, says Velmurukan, a young sculptor proudly.

Rocks can be differentiated as male and female according to their nature and response to chiselling. A hammer is used to knock at a rock and the sound produced helps identify whether it is male or female. When a rough sound is produced, the rock would be male. It is hard and produces sparks while shaping with a chisel. But the female rocks create a sweet sound.

“The gender of the rocks is usually checked before starting work on idols. Female gods are created on female rocks and their male counterparts on male stone. Another interesting fact is that the idols are fixed on stone platforms made of the opposite gender. However, decorative pillars, roof of the temple and similar structures are made of ‘gender neutral stone’,” says Chandrakumar, another sculptor.

“But it is not so easy to distinguish the stones; this knowledge can be gained only after years of experience,” points out another artisan, Sivarajan.

Master craftsmen

Stapathis are temple architects who set the measurements of a temple and idol based on the geographical location and other factors. They are higher in the hierarchy of temple craftsmen than ordinary sculptors. Stapathis create the blueprint for building temples which the sculptors turn into reality. A temple initially takes birth in the mind of the stapathis. They decide even the size of the chisel to be used to create the idol. After the work is completed, the idol should seem life-like. The stapathis should also be convinced.

“There are strict parameters regarding the construction of the sanctum sanctorum. Its door is built according to certain measurements and the height of the idol depends on the size of the door. An idol has eight distinct parts which should stick to a fixed proportion for being installed for worship in a temple,” says stapathi Chudala Chandran who has built numerous grand temples in Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

“An idol is considered unfit for worship even if one chisel blow goes wrong,” Chandran explains.

Customisation is the trend

Stapathi Kalyana Sundaram is busy creating the golden chariot for the Bhagavathy Temple at Mandakkad in Kanniyakumari district. Gold worth Rs 3 crore has gone into the work. Sculptor Raghu is assisting him. All parts of the chariot, including the wheels and pillars, are made of gold.

Outside Sundaram’s workplace, two decorated vehicles wait. One has come from Aryanad in Thiruvananthapuram and the other from Kollam. They have arrived to take the idols ceremonially to the respective temples. A large gathering, including the temple office-bearers, accompanies the idols.

No idol is available ready-made. Each is custom-built according to the requirement of the temple. However, there are two exceptions – Ganapathy and Subrahmanya. Their measurements will always be the same. “Moreover, these Gods are easily pleased,” explains Subrahmanyan, a sculptor.

Though Krishnasila is used to create idols of major Gods, other stones give life to minor deities and ‘gate keepers’ (dwarapalakas) of the shrines.

Dust emerges from the workshops. It is a sign of modernisation as sculptors depend on grinders for their work nowadays. Still, the finishing touches are given with chisels. “Earlier, it took about two months to create an idol two feet tall. Now the work can be completed in 10 days. However, breathing all this dust, our lifespan will be reduced by 10 years,” points out Sahadevan, another artisan.

Fragrant rock

The sweet scent of sandalwood pervades the workplace. One wonders how crushed rock would have this scent. Sculptor Raghu explains: “We are also working on sandal stone –a rock that has the scent of sandal wood. Its dust is carried by wind to a considerable distance.”

Thiruvattar Sukumaran Nair, a historian, explains the present status of Myladi. “Sculptures from here have reached various lands over the last 600 years. But when the Tamil Nadu government imposed restrictions on quarrying, there was a crisis in Myladi. Now, Krishnasila is brought from Madurai and other places.”

Work goes on at the village – that of giving life to rock. The master craftsmen of Myladi create poetry out of stone, keeping alive a tradition that has been continuing over several centuries, with knowledge passed down the generations.

Travel tips

Myladi village is part of Kanyakumari district in Tamil Nadu

It is 98 km from Thiruvananthapuram and 12 km from Nagercoil

The nearest railway station is Nagercoil

There are few hotels in Myladi and visitors may have to find accommodation at Nagercoil or Kanyakumari

The nearest airport is Thiruvananthapuram.

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